MFA Application: Personal Essay

start“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it” — Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird.

Fear made me hold my breath. For three years, I sat on my MFA application stewing in fears of rejection. I kept waiting for a sign to confirm my desires to write. Ideally, the sign would be a text from God telling me writing is what he wanted me to do, and that l would be great at it someday. I kept waiting, and no such text came. At some point, I realized if I wanted to pursue an MFA, I would have to walk by faith. This year, I finally applied, and I am excited to say I will begin the program early next year. Since I began telling people about this, some have asked me about the application process and where I struggled the most. 

To be honest, THE most difficult part of the application was writing the personal essay (or personal statement). I have a very hard time writing about myself; it feels too raw, too open for judgment. Like a limping deer in the middle of open season. To help anyone else who might feel the same way, below is a slightly edited version of my essay.

Note: The school I applied to asked for a 5 to 10-page essay responding to the questions: Where are you in time and how did you get there? What are you going to do in the program? What will you do with your program accomplishments following graduation?

Personal Essay

A while ago, I happened upon a panel discussion at a local university. That evening, Linda a trauma counselor in her late sixties shared with the audience an experience she holds dear. When Linda was in college, she volunteered with the American Red Cross in Bolivia after a series of earthquakes and mudslides, and while there, she met a mother who had lost her entire family and everything she owned. This woman turned away food and refused to sleep inside the shelter; she rejected the very things Linda thought would bring relief.

One day, not knowing what else to do, Linda sat next to the grieving mother and started asking questions – what was her life like, what were her daily routines, and what did her children like to eat. Slowly, the woman shared her story. She talked about how she lived, how she survived, and how much she missed her family. Soon after the woman started talking, she began to accept the physical assistances offered. That experience led Linda to her vocation and the type of counselor she wanted to be. She learned that helping people tell their story was the most valuable form of aid, even more valuable than food or shelter.

I believe our stories are the core of who we are and who we can become, and our interpretation of the past connects us to the future we seek. The best gift I can offer others is my curiosity – asking the questions they have been waiting to answer. I often wonder what our lives would look like if we were honest with each other about the experiences that defined and refined us, and the experiences that molded us into who we are.

I also wonder what my life would look like if I were more honest about my childhood challenges. Would I be more or less accepted? Some of my struggles inspired the short story “Where Are Your Quail Eggs” in my writing sample.

I had an itinerant upbringing; in eighteen years, my family moved eleven times across five countries and four continents. In 1990, when I was five, my parents left China with nothing more than what they could carry in four suitcases. My father belongs to the pioneering generation of Chinese scholars who came to the West in the late 80s and early 90s. They were a generation of men and women born in the old world, raised during the Cultural Revolution, and then sent to farm in the countryside after high school. My dad farmed for five years before he was allowed to go to university. When he was finally in college, he enjoyed it so much he never wanted to leave. He kept learning and pursued a Ph.D. in the UK.

After my parents first arrived in Scotland, they rented one room in a large, dilapidated house and cooked off a hotplate. They knew so precious little about Western society. The next five years were not easy for them, and the chasm between their hopes and the reality swallowed their marriage, ending it in divorce.

I grew up with a single dad for many years. Money was always a concern throughout my childhood, so when I started college, I felt I needed to choose a major wisely, choose something that would lead to a good, stable career. With that, I chose accounting. After graduation, I landed a job as an auditor at a public accounting firm. After a couple of years, I started writing. I don’t know why I started writing, and I can’t say it was a planned decision. One evening, I felt this immediate urge to put down on paper what I was feeling, so I started scribbling on a notepad. The words that came out weren’t pretty or even cohesive, but it felt good to write. I remember reading Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird and how she described, “Writing this way is a little like milking a cow; the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.” I felt tickled and understood. Writing helped me endure. Books such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Pale View of Hills, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Amy Bloom’s Come To Me gave me hope and inspiration.

A couple of years later, I signed up for a fiction workshop and loved it. For the past four years, I participate in workshops whenever possible to improve my writing and to meet other writers. I have thought about applying to an MFA program for years but could not find the courage. I didn’t know how I could justify the expenses. Plus, what would happen if I were rejected?

Then something changed, and I came to a turning point in my writing. About a year ago, I met Anne (we will call her Anne because I can’t use her real name). Anne is a senior in high school with a 3.67 GPA; she plans to go to the University of North Texas to become a teacher. She loves her little brothers and hates drugs. On the surface, she seems like a typical teenager, but if you look a little deeper, you will see her achievements shine much brighter when set against the darkness from which they emerge. Anne entered the Texas foster system when she was nine and became an orphan when she was fifteen, following her mother’s overdose. She has had to fight poverty and bullying daily.

I met Anne at a career preparation day hosted by local nonprofits supporting foster children who are about to age out of the system. I volunteered for the event without too much consideration. When Anne and I were paired together for a mock interview, she calmly walked me through the day she got the call about her mother’s death. She explained that because her uncles were jailed at the time, she had to choose what to do with her mother’s body. She described how she weighed the pros and cons of different options and then concluded cremation was the best choice in the situation. She spoke in a matter of fact way, a veteran foster child’s answer to the question, “tell me a time when you had to make a difficult decision.”

At that moment, I did not know how to react to Anne’s story, so I nodded and moved on to the next question. Within twenty minutes, a coordinator ushered her away. Anne moved on quickly but her answer did not. That day stretched my mind so far that it could never go back to its original shape. What Anne shared with me is so different from anything I had personally experienced, yet it resonated with me in a profound way. It reminded me there are limits to what hardship and misfortune can achieve. Anne’s loss caused her heartbreak and pain, but from that suffering, she formed a resolute spirit. She has strengths and purpose.

Anne’s story led me to explore stories of overcoming. I awoke to the idea that I could turn my writing outward and help others muddle through the fog of experiences to find meaning. I can help people tell their story. A year ago, I began a project interviewing friends and family about their personal struggles and triumphs. I ask each interviewee the same question, what is the most difficult thing you have had to overcome? Then from that conversation, I interpret what was shared and translate it into a narrative; I write in the first person to help capture the distinctiveness in each voice. My hope is that each piece becomes a portrait, framing a slice of someone’s life.  So far, I’ve interviewed over twenty people, and I am mindful of the potential to expand the project beyond my network to a larger community.  In my writing sample, you will find two of those conversations; other interviews are on my blog Story That Matters. Anne’s story has also led my husband and me to begin the process to become foster parents.

I want to continue writing because I want to understand people. The question, “what makes you, you?” fascinates me. I am especially interested in the extraordinary stories of overcoming in ordinary lives, stories that speak to our shared bond of brokenness and resilience.

For me to reach my goal, I need to improve my writing. I aspire to be better, and I want the chance to practice, to learn, and to receive meaningful feedback. I want to take myself seriously as a writer. In the program, I hope to focus on creative nonfiction. I want to learn more about the craft of storytelling and experiment with different forms and perspective, and I want to find a community of writers who can support each other for many years to come. The Story That Matters project has been a wonderful, life-giving experience, and I anticipate I will take what I learn to enhance the blog.

Currently, I don’t know for certain what I will do with my program accomplishments following graduation. I believe the program will change me and change my hopes for the future, and I am trying to embrace that uncertainly. In the long-term, a project that I have in mind is to write a collection of essays or stories that explore experiences distinct to the children of the first generation Chinese-American scholars. Those of us who grew up in the shadows of clashing cultures, languages, and religions have had to figure out how to weave a solid future out of a disparate past. We are, at the same time, foreigners to our parents’ homeland and immigrants in our adoptive country, we don’t entirely belong to anyplace but to ourselves.

I initially found _____ University through a google search on low-residency MFA programs, and one of the key reasons I am so interested in the program is its emphasis on one-on-one faculty mentorship. Who does not crave to be deeply seen and deeply known? I believe the faculty at ______ University genuinely wants to help its students find their voices and be the best writers they can be.

I am excited and grateful for your consideration. I feel strongly about the curriculum’s blend of writing workshops, craft and reflection, and mentorship. I hope my desire for writing and my experience in writing workshops can provide me the knowledge and drive needed to succeed in the program.  Thank you for your time and consideration.




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